In November 2016, FBS interviewed Ursula Mims Relaford in Atlanta, GA. She has been singing her whole life. She talked to me about the origins of this work and growing up with a mother who loved music. While we have made some choices that help transfer speech to writing, the following is a transcription of Ms. Relaford’s words with few editorial interventions. Be sure to check out her singing here: Department of Justice Black History Month Program
My mother taught us harmony. During that time it was like—“This is my goal; this is my mission. My children are going to sing. They are going to harmonize and it’s my duty to teach them.” So while she would go through that it was not really fun. She was like, “Do it again! Do it again!” I was like, “Is she for real? Can I just go play?” It got the point where me and Daryl teamed up and said, “Let’s give her what she wants. Let’s get this right because the sooner we get this right, we gone be done. She gone let us go.” So in the process, what started out to be an irritant, a burden became a joy. Then when heard that final sound, he was doing the tenor and Mama was a third above him doing alto and I’d be doing soprano. Then we were able to listen to each other and hear it. We were able to look in each other’s mouths and see that we were singing something different but my skill would allow me to stay on my key while I looked you right in your face and heard a different sound. It made us feel so accomplished. It was like she planted a seed.
Mama was determined and specific about training. But then we got to a point when we were better than her when it came to harmonizing. But we didn’t bother her with it. We’d just sing around her if we were doing something or we’d let her take the lead if we were going to back her up. Of course she could sing and stay on key, but with each generation you get better. And you get more intricate. We were able to do harmonies that weren’t just simple ABC. We might be able to do a fragment or something with dissonance, something that clashed, that sounded like it didn’t work but then spewed off of that note and went up or went down. We could add dynamics with it and make it a more difficult harmony. Whereas by the time she finished she was still AB and C. But Mama did her job because she taught us. Now we’ve taken it from here.
My brother Daryl not only had the natural ability but he was a musician. I wasn’t really a musician. I was just skilled vocal. Mama was determined to try to make me a musician and put me in piano. Piano helped for two years but I didn’t have the passion. And I struggle to be good at what I don’t enjoy. Some people can do well at things even if they don’t like it because they just have a knack for it. I couldn’t do that. But I did learn how to sight read. I could sight read well and I could fake it really good. I was a master at faking it to where you thought I knew music. Or shall I say where you thought I knew theory. Theory is the science of music. The science of music doesn’t feel like art; it feels like science. Looking at those notes and playing it and turning that page, that was foreign for me. But doing the opera and acting like I knew it, I was good at that.
Now Daryl had a natural knack for playing, for singing. He played the flute and the clarinet, and he could do the sax. Daryl was the musician. His singing didn’t come out ‘til later. When we were kids, she made us learn harmonizing but she knew what area we thrived in. As we continued she knew that Daryl didn’t sing a lot but Daryl always wanted to play an instrument. He was always tinkling on the piano and playing the clarinet and reading notes. So she just left him alone to do that because at least he was into music. And he was into music without her having to force it. It’s just that he wasn’t singing. But it was still music and Mama was fine with that. Who she kinda wasn’t fine with was me just singing and not knowing music. She was like you need to be well rounded. “You already got the gift. I need you to be educated. You need to know music.” I was like, “why?” She wanted me to know music but I didn’t even know if it was my thing. But it was my thing.
I knew it was my thing. I was trying to get away from learning how to play because learning how to play was like math. And me and math still don’t get along. It was hard. It did not come easy. It did not come as naturally as singing to me. But I felt like I was good because my brother knew it. One of us knew it. So I was like, hey, let him handle that; let me handle the singing and together we did what need to be done. I have a little bit of theory background. I studied music education at Bowie State for three and a half years. That’s got to count for something.
Mama might have expected that we would be famous or that we would take it to the next level. If my mother were alive today to say why music mattered so much to her I believe that she would answer that question like I would answer it. And I’m only saying that because I’m her child and I know the seed that she’s planted in me about music that I can express now. It was her way of expressing God’s goodness and greatness in the earth. It was her way that she could artistically and individually express the greatness of God. Really, God gives every man—and my mother told me this—every man gets a gift. Every individual does not leave this earth without some gift. Now sometimes they leave the earth not knowing what it is, but every man is given some type of gift. It may not be music. It may be smarts. It may be a desire for giving or to fight for the rights of others. Whatever is your passion. Music was my mother’s passion. It was ministry. It was a gift that God gave her because everybody can’t sing and she did it well.
When she sang it was to praise God, to minister, to sing to others and when she sang people said, “Oh you did my heart so good” “Oh I needed that song.” So that’s a way of helping people. People were delivered. People were informed. I guess you could say they were educated. You know because they received a message, for some reason the light came on. You know, God’s word never returns void but if you present it at the right time and in the right way, certain people that it didn’t stick with one particular day it’s gone stick with another. Just like when you go to church and you hear that same message and you be like, you know he gone preach about tithes or he gone preach about this—but this particular day you get a different understanding. And it sticks and stays and you are able to interpret it and define it in a way that meaningful for you. So that happens a lot when you deliver any message artistically. Of course when you deliver it through music people can be more attentive to receive it and hear it because of its presentation. It’s harmonious. It sounds good. It’s soothing. And so therefore you’re engaged and you’re able to listen. You can be like that not only sounds good but that message. Did you get that? I got that. I felt that. That message was powerful. So it’s the delivery and it’s the message. It’s the feeling you feel. And it’s the gates that open up in your spirit for what you receive. A message is a communicator.
I think she was passing a legacy. She wasn’t rich. If she didn’t leave us money and if she didn’t leave us cars and she didn’t leave us some kind of book or memoir. She left within us the gift of music. She had it. She passed it on to us. And we’re continuing it on with our kids. Maybe that’s what drove her. Maybe she was like this is my legacy. Long after I’m gone they’ll have this. And it will be an extension of me moving forward into the generations.
I don’t recall my mother resting. It seemed like we always had to be running and doing stuff. I can’t think of anything except these conferences in church. Even though she was running that was a time out for her. She was praising God and that was something she did voluntarily. Operating in the service of the Lord. She loved to go to these conferences and things. I think that was her rest because we couldn’t lay in the bed on Saturdays up until 11. It seemed like that was just wrong. She was doing choirs. If she wasn’t doing choirs she was going grocery shopping. If she wasn’t going grocery shopping she was planting something in the garden or working out in the yard. If she wasn’t working out in the yard we were at church. We had church on Sunday, Bible study on Wednesday. I don’t recall her watching a lot of tv. I don’t recall her leaving the house to have some me-time. I don’t recall that. Mama was always around. Outside of the regular sleep she got at night, I think her rest was church. Was a getaway. Church was an escape. Church was where she found her rest.
I take vacations. I get massages. I will go to bed at night at 8:30 or 9. I won’t watch no tv. Have my dinner, take my shower, surf facebook for a minute, and after facebook shut off the lights, turn on Pandora—sometimes it’s gospel, sometimes smooth jazz, r&b, whatever—and just let the music take me on into lala land and I’ll sleep until I’m bright eyed and bushy tailed. And then once I’m wide awake I just force myself to lay there for a couple of hours and just rest. Just try to veg-out and not let the day’s events stress me out or worry me. And then I’ll start my day.